In 1994 first time director Eric Bress gave us The Butterfly Effect. While not beloved by film critics at the time, the film found its audience and has achieved somewhat of a cult following. The film would go on to make nearly 100 million dollars at the world box office against a 13-million-dollar budget. While no doubt the star power of a young Ashton Kutcher helped boost the numbers, it was a certified hit. That was 16 years ago and Eric Bress has not directed another film – until now.
Ghosts of War follows five American soldiers who are assigned to hold and safeguard a French Chateau near the end of World War II. The film does a good job establishing its real-world setting, beginning with a big splash page informing us that we are in Nazi-occupied France in 1944. As the group makes its way across some the beautiful French countryside, we get a first-hand look at who they really are in visceral fashion. The unit, led by Lt. Goodson (Brenton Thwaites) has all the usual hallmarks you would expect, the earnest Eugene (Skylar Astin), the meat head Butchie (Alan Ritchson), the straight-laced Kirk (Theo Rossi), and the wild card Tappert (Kyle Gallner). They encounter Nazi soldiers and dispatch of them quickly and sadistically. The violence is brutal and bloody – these men have been through hell.
Luckily for them, their newest objective seems like a vacation compared to everything they have witnessed so far, babysit the Chateau until their replacements relieve them, easy enough. Their excitement increases when they set eyes on the vast estate. The sprawling manor is beautiful and spacious. There is another American crew there, waiting to be relieved themselves, and they are all too enthusiastic about leaving. This is when the World War II drama becomes a straight up haunted house film. This does sound like a really fun idea – and it might work with a different film – but the execution from this point in the movie deteriorates in quality quickly. Even the last gasp of a plot in the last twenty minutes is laughably absurd.
The Chateau itself is a great set piece. All the various rooms and hallways look very “lived in” and appropriate for the period, perfectly fitting for house that may or may not be haunted. The first night ramps up the tension, each soldier experiencing something paranormal. A shadow barely in frame, footsteps and things that go bump in the night. They discover a diary (how convenient) that belonged to the owners of the house, revealing the horrible deaths that became them at the hands of the evil Nazis.
As the ghosts become more sinister the film falters. All the familiar trappings of the genre play themselves out. The scares are reduced to lunging ghosts and well timed musical stings. Everything leading up to when the crew gets to the manor is exceptional. The cinematography from Lorenzo Senatore is quite beautiful, the dynamic lighting and visuals really key you into the surroundings. There is something to be said about the competency of the crew involved. Unfortunately, that did not last long.
Bress – who also wrote the script – wants to equate the horrors of war and the psychological degradation with being haunted by ghosts. I understand the sentiment but the balance is off. The tonal shift between full on horror and the third act – when he tries to make his big political and moral statement – are so jarring that the end result is a muddled mess that fails to highlight anything that he is trying to bring to our attention. Do not be fooled by the ending, it is neither clever nor insightful. Perhaps there is a reason we did not see a film from him in over two decades.
.5 out of 5